April 20, 2024

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The king who missed his chance: Freddie Keppard was a natural talent … Video, Photos

The almost forgotten cornetist Freddie Keppard was briefly king of jazz: a natural talent who couldn’t read music. In 1916 he turned down the offer to be one of the first to record.

The legendary “King” Keppard is considered the link in jazz history between the legendary Buddy Bolden, of whom no recordings exist, and King Oliver, Louis Armstrong’s forerunner and mentor. “I don’t know anyone who could beat Keppard – his range was so extraordinary, both up and down. He had more imagination and better tone than anyone else,” enthused jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton. According to contemporary witnesses, he also blew with more power than anyone else and his eight-man band was as loud as an entire military band.

Fredde Keppard was born in 1890 in New Orleans, the cradle of jazz. His older brother was the guitarist and tuba player Louis Keppard. Both took their first steps on string instruments under the instruction of their mother: Freddie on the mandolin, Louis on the guitar. Freddie also played violin and accordion before switching to the cornet and sticking exclusively to that instrument. He was not self-taught, as we know the name of his teacher: Adolphe Alexander. From 1906 to 1912, Keppard led his own formation: the Olympia Orchestra, with which he earned a reputation as the outstanding cornet player. His music impressed the very young Louis Armstrong in the orphanage: “The air was heavy with the scent of honeysuckle. How I loved that scent. On quiet Sunday evenings, when I lay on my cot and listened to Freddie Keppard and his jazz band about half a mile away “Playing for rich white people, the delicious smell filled my nose,” recalled Armstrong, who described the experience as “heaven on earth for a kid my age.”

Twice King Oliver succeeded Keppard, his greatest rival. When Keppard transferred leadership of the Olympia Orchestra to Armand Piron in 1912, King Oliver became the band’s cornetist. To join Bill Johnson’s Original Creole Band, Keppard moved to L.A., where the band spread the music to the West. Keppard became their co-leader, then their leader until 1918. Later, the previous leader Bill Johnson and with him the name “Creole Jazz Band” came to King Oliver. Unfortunately, Keppard never recorded with his Olympia Orchestra and Creole Band. Their importance cannot be underestimated. He was one of the first jazz trumpeters to be heard in Chicago and New York when the Creole Jazz Band performed there in 1915. To get an idea of his powerful playing, you have to look to later records, such as “Messin’ Around” from 1926 with Cookie’s Gingersnaps.

Keppard couldn’t read music and kept this a secret by having the others play the melody first. Jelly Roll Morton said: “He would feign valve problems and finger the keys, shake the instrument and sit it out, all the while listening. When someone challenged him he would say, ‘Go ahead, I’ll play my part!’ Then he picked up his instrument and played flawlessly until the end.”

CD Cover Freddie Keppard | Bildquelle: Retrieval

When performing, he is said to have covered his fingers with a handkerchief – which may be the origin of Armstrong’s habit of performing with a handkerchief.

Mutt Carey, a trumpeter from New Orleans who was a year younger than Keppard, explained: “For a while, Freddie Keppard was the biggest thing in New Orleans. He was king and wore the crown. He had a lot of ideas, a big tone and a safe technique. He was a natural talent because he hadn’t had much musical education. He could have become just as famous as Louis because he was the first to have the chance to make recordings. But he didn’t want to because he was afraid other musicians could steal his stuff.”

In fact, Freddie Keppard’s few recordings, all of which fit on a single CD, were only made from 1923 onwards – after his heyday, when he was already in poor health. However, the black musician turned down the chance to record his first jazz records in 1916. “I’m not stupid to put my ideas on record so that everyone can copy them,” Keppard is said to have said. The white Original Dixieland Jazz Band made their first jazz recordings in 1917. Perhaps there was another reason for his refusal to record, as it is attested that in 1919 he showed his New York colleagues how to play in the New Orleans style, which is hardly possible without revealing his know-how.

After World War I, Chicago was Keppard’s headquarters, although he also traveled to other cities from here. From 1922 onwards he worked intermittently for five years with Doc Cook, who had studied music – hence the very real doctorate – and led a large dance orchestra in Dreamland. Keppard made most of his recordings with him. There he played with the great clarinetist Jimmie Noone, who was also his brother-in-law, around 1926 in “Here Comes the Hot Tamale Man”, meaning the dumpling salesman.

Keppard only made recordings between 1923 and 1927, and only sporadically. Most of his recordings only document him as a sideman; some of them were made under miserable technical conditions; He also played with musicians who, apart from Noone, were usually inferior to him or didn’t provide a particularly suitable framework.

A little more than two dozen recordings are Keppard’s entire legacy. They were created when he had already become addicted to alcohol and, according to contemporary witnesses, are said to be only a pale reflection of his earlier achievements. Towards the end of the decade, the playing style of the artist, who was considered one of the greatest by Sidney Bechet and Jelly Roll Morton, seemed increasingly old-fashioned, especially when compared to that of Armstrong. Added to this was the difficult economic situation in the years after the stock market crash. Keppard rarely appeared and was forgotten. He contracted tuberculosis and died in Chicago on July 15, 1933, an impoverished alcoholic at the age of 43.

But the image of an arrogant loudmouth and irritable drinker has recently clouded the memory of him too one-sidedly, as the words of the blues singer Alberta Hunter show: “He was such a fine guy and pleasant to deal with. I never saw him drunk. Yes, he was already a prince in his kingdom and always gave good advice to beginners. He always played in his shirtsleeves. Yes, really, a damn fine guy!”

Joe 'King Oliver und seine Jazz-Band / Foto 1923 Oliver, Joe 'King' US-amerikan. Kornettist (New Orleans Jazz-Musiker); 11.5.1885 New Orleans (Louisiana) - 10.4.1938 Savannah (Georgia). - Joe 'King' Oliver (Mitte) mit seiner 1922 gegründeten 'King's Oliver's Creole Jazz Band' (v.l., 'Baby' Dodds, Horace Dubrey, Bill Johnson, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Dodds und Lillian Hardin Armstrong) | Bildquelle: picture alliance / akg-images | akg-images

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